By Thomas Escritt
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Authorities in Montenegro vowed to get to the bottom of an alleged armed foreign conspiracy targeting elections this month, but critics questioned official accounts of what had taken place and one opposition member said the affair was staged.
The tiny Balkan state's parliamentary vote on October 16 was overshadowed by the arrest of 20 Serb citizens accused of sneaking across the border to mount armed attacks.
- Celebrity deaths 2018: All the stars we lost too soon 44 Pictures
- 10 finalists for TIME Person of the Year 2018 10 Pictures
Opposition parties cried foul, alleging that pro-Western Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, whose party came out ahead but without a parliamentary majority, was using the security services to help extend his quarter century of dominance over Montenegro.
Djukanovic presented the election as a chance for Montenegro's 620,000 citizens to endorse his policy of joining NATO and the EU instead of pursuing deeper ties with traditional allies in Serbia and Russia.
"We have a heavy presence of foreign actors in Montenegro," Djukanovic said on Tuesday. His country was working with Serbian authorities to unravel the alleged conspiracy, of which Serbia had had no knowledge, he said.
The arrests, announced while voting was still underway, lent support to a narrative advanced by Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists, which accused opposition parties of working hand-in-glove with traditional Orthodox Christian and nationalist allies in Serbia and Russia to derail imminent NATO membership.
Montenegrin authorities said the ringleader was Bratislav Dikic, 46, a former police general, known for his strident nationalist views. But the Serb said he was in Montenegro to visit a monastery to pray for a health cure.
"Most likely the entire affair was staged by the Agency for National Security," said Nebojsa Medojevic, a leader of the Democratic Front opposition alliance, which came second behind Djukanovic's DPS.
Election observers judged the vote broadly fair, but for critics, the arrests show the limits to a Western policy of prizing stability above transparency and the rule of law in a region that was torn apart by brutal ethnic wars in the 1990s.
"You start to wonder if this really was some group of conspirators, or was it set up by Djukanovic to strengthen his position," said James Ker-Lindsay, a specialist in Balkan politics at the London School of Economics.
"People are starting to question whether we're putting too high a price on supposed stability rather than holding people to account," he added.
After initially seeming puzzled at the allegations coming from their smaller neighbor, Serbian authorities on Monday said they had found evidence of a conspiracy on their soil, though none of those they had identified were linked to Dikic or any of the 19 others arrested in Montenegro.
(Additional reporting by Petar Komnenic in Podgorica and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Editing by Richard Balmforth)